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Albania battles armed drug gangs in farming village turned lawless marijuana empire

Albanian special forces police surround the marijuana-growing village of Lazarat, south of the capital Tirana, Monday June 16, 2014. Gangs based in Lazarat are believed to produce about 900 metric tons of cannabis a year, worth about 4.5 billion euros ($6.1 billion) _ roughly half the small Balkan country's GDP. (AP Photo/Hektor Pustina)

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Albanian special forces police surround the marijuana-growing village of Lazarat, south of the capital Tirana, Monday June 16, 2014. Gangs based in Lazarat are believed to produce about 900 metric tons of cannabis a year, worth about 4.5 billion euros ($6.1 billion) _ roughly half the small Balkan country's GDP. (AP Photo/Hektor Pustina)

LAZARAT, Albania - Until ten years ago, Lazarat was a regular farming community. Now the village in southern Albania is Europe's biggest illegal marijuana producer, raking in billions of euros every year from the plants openly cultivated in fields and house gardens.

Set in a green plain overlooked by high hills, this sprawling southern village of 5,000 is believed to produce about 900 metric tons of cannabis a year, worth some 4.5 billion euros ($6.1 billion) — just under half of the small Balkan country's GDP.

The lucrative business has left its marks on society. Today flashy cars and expensive homes dot the village, where many residents were left unemployed after the political purges that followed changes of government in Albania in the late 1990s. Ironically, many had previously worked for the customs service, handling nearby border crossings with Greece.

The marijuana-farming has grown constantly since then, encouraged by strong demand in neighbouring Greece and Italy, while Albania has also become a major transit point for other drugs coming in to Europe from Asia and Latin America.

Previously, authorities left the drug gangs pretty much to their own devices, as police visits tended to be met with gunfire. But change has come with the new Socialist government, which came into power last year with a clear aim to stamp out the marijuana economy and persist with efforts to seek Albanian membership in European Union. The country's application for candidate member status in the 28-nation bloc has already been turned down three times, with organized crime and corruption always cited as a stumbling block.

In their most ambitious effort so far, 500 police officers were deployed this week to impose law and order in Lazarat as part of a nationwide anti-drug operation— only to be hailed with rocket-propelled grenades, mortar shells and heavy machine-gun fire once they reached the outskirts of the village. With local television broadcasting the events live, police and the Interior Ministry urged residents to stay indoors and warned others to stay away from the area, some 230 kilometres (140 miles) south of the capital, Tirana.

Police chief Artan Didi told reporters in Tirana that police were targeting a "very well-structured and organized criminal group that is keeping the village in its claws."

On the second day of operations Tuesday, police numbers were reinforced to 800 and officers took control of about a quarter of the village, seizing "considerable quantities" of marijuana and ammunition, as well as drug-processing machinery. Amid near-continuous gunfire, they also destroyed 11,000 cannabis plants, and were planning to gingerly advance into gang-defended areas.

Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri vowed to persist until "every square centimetre in Lazarat is under state control."

According to the Socialists, Lazarat — a stronghold of the former ruling Democratic party — previously benefited from links with the political elite.

"Time is over for the links of the world of crime in Lazarat with parliament, with politics, with those they exploited until yesterday," Tahiri said. "What you are seeing today is the best example of our determination to install the rule of law in every corner of Albania."

The Democrats issued a statement saying that, while they support anti-drugs operations, the government's response was too heavy-handed and "exerts psychological terror on the civilian population."

Six men have been arrested in the village on suspicion of participating in an earlier shootout and of attacking and robbing a television news crew.

Police said most of the shooting was coming from two houses that apparently had stockpiles of weapons. Dozens of heavily-armed drug gang members were firing from vantage points inside the community and drawing from at least four underground former army weapons dumps that are easily accessible from the village.

Albania, a small mountainous country on the Adriatic coast opposite Italy, has just over 3 million people. It was for decades Europe's most isolated country until a student uprising toppled the communist regime in 1990 and Albanians emigrated en masse to Greece, Italy and other western countries.

Another uprising in 1997 led to the extensive looting of military installations, flooding Albania with weaponry, most of which is still unaccounted for. Lazarat's access to the underground depots dates to that period.

"We are afraid that if we enter (the village) and respond to the shooting, we may cause casualties," a special police officer dressed in camouflage and wearing a bulletproof vest told an Associated Press photographer at the scene. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not officially authorized to speak to the media.

"Moreover, (they) have all the weapons and equipment we have," he said.

Four people — a policeman and three villagers — have been hurt so far, suffering light gunshot injuries.

___

Llazar Semini reported from Tirana.

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